Sunday, December 26, 2010

A slew of new gnu

Common (or brindled) wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus). Photo by Dom Cram.

The 'miracle of birth' is one of those tired clichés that slide past us without making the slightest impact.

(Don't panic this is NOT a schmaltzy Christmas post.)

And it's not just the phrase that's world-weary; it's the concept too.
Oh yeah, another birth, another miracle... ho hum.
Unless you're involved personally, unless a small, mewling being is actually placed in your own hands, the creation of a new life - where none existed before - is something we bizarrely take for granted.

Well this week I encountered an antidote to this blasé approach to natural miracles.
It was brought to me by my local wildebeest herd.

Wildebeests (or gnus) are the itchy-hoofed members of the antelope family. They're dedicated believers in the old 'grass is always greener...' adage. Let them perceive the distant rumbles of a far-flung thunderstorm and off they'll go, happily trudging 50 km (31 miles) in search of that greener grass. And of course you'll have seen footage of wildebeest herds - a thousand strong - trekking through East Africa on their annual migratory romp.

A new gnu. Gnu is the Hottentot name for the species. To produce a convincing imitation of the male's territorial call, pinch your nose and say 'g-noo' in a deep voice. Photo posted on Flickr by naddel.

But not all wildebeests migrate. Give a wildebeest a generous supply of short, green grass and a drinking fountain and he'll hunker down with all the gusto of a limpet (surely limpets have gusto). Alternatively you can just build a fence. This may, of course, have dire consequences, as demonstrated by the 50,000 wildebeests that met their maker along Botswana's veterinary fences during the mid-1980s' drought. But I'm getting sidetracked here. The point is that many wildebeests (including the ones living around here) enjoy a happy and fulfilling sedentary life.

But regardless of whether they're nomads or couch potatoes, wildebeests are built to roam. Unlike every other antelope, they don't hide their calves away during the first days or months of life; that would be a sure-fire way of getting left behind. The newborns must find their feet immediately, and they can totter after Mum within - on average - six minutes of birth. But such tiny calves, moving openly with the herd, are dreadfully vulnerable to anything with big teeth. So what's to be done?

Mastering stilt-galloping. Notice that the legs of this newborn are almost as long as his mum's. Wildebeest calves are born during the morning to maximize their practice time before the nightly predators rock up. Photo posted on Flickr by Kibuyu.

I witnessed the solution to this problem firsthand this week. You see I usually pass a herd of wildebeests on my way to the mongooses each day. Black-coated with large, heavy heads topped with devil horns, they remind me of those medieval depictions of demons. The well-grown yearlings cavort and prance, tossing their bearded heads, while the females - bellies rounded and taut - pause in their grazing to gaze at me through long black lashes. Patrolling the herd is a macho territory-owner, bigger and darker than the rest. He stands regally side-on, striving to show off his majestic physique.

Now I can't say I haven't been expecting it; it happens just before Xmas every year. But it's always a shock, anticipated or not. You see when I passed the herd on Tuesday, it had almost doubled in size. Tottering by the side of every female was a wobbly-legged calf. The sudden, miraculous appearance of a whole herd full of little tan calves is utterly awe-inspiring and, of course, a real joy.

To outfox predators, wildebeests opt for the old predator satiation strategy, flooding the market with all their yummy calves at once. And when I say 'at once' that's exactly what I mean. Expectant mums congregate (hundreds at a time in the large migratory herds) at special calving grounds (normally open, short-grassed areas) dropping their calves together. This en masse calf-production begins very abruptly because no one can afford to be early; a calf arriving even one day ahead of its peers is destined for consumption. And any latecomers, being littler than the rest, are also prone to be munched.

I defy anyone to experience this sudden magical conjuring of wildebeest calves without feeling awe, wonder and a renewed appreciation for the 'miracle of birth'.

Built for speed, a calf tests his legs. Wildebeests begin to lose their tan coats at two months old. Photo posted on Flickr by Picture Taker 2.


  1. Wow! I had no idea about that. What an amazing phenomenon.

    And here's the obligatory awwwwww! Because there's no denying it: new gnus are neat.

  2. Fantastic photos, especially the first one with the dust and the light. Diane

  3. Wow. SUPER interesting re: strategy and exceedingly well told. And those new gnu legs ARE about as long as the mom's. Amazing!

  4. A wonderful description. You have a much more interesting 'drive to work' than most!

  5. Snail,
    I hope little gnus don't suffer peer group pressure (whew!), but imagine the party they hold on their birthday!

    Yes, it's breathtaking. This is why I don't try to take photos myself. No matter how much effort I put in, my shots will never compare with all the wonderful images that the 'serious' enthusiasts create.

    I'm just imagining the chaos that'd result if baby humans had adult-sized limbs: no putting things out of reach!

    Sometimes when I'm driving to work I switch on the radio and listen to the Johannesburg traffic report just so I can feel privileged and smug!


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